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North Dakota voters to decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana

In this July 9 file photo, Dave Owen, middle, chairman of the North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative, celebrates a high-five with volunteer Becky-Muhs-Rettig inside the Secretary of State's office at the state Capitol Bismarck. File photo / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — North Dakotans will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana this fall, two years after voters approved the drug’s medical use.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said Monday, Aug. 13, the group pushing a ballot measure submitted 14,637 valid signatures last month, about 1,200 more than it needed to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“We expected it. I’m just glad Al Jaeger confirmed it,” said David Owen, a University of North Dakota student leading the measure campaign.

The measure would amend state law to legalize “non-violent marijuana related activity” for those over 21, except for selling to minors, and wouldn’t impose limits on the amount somebody could possess or grow. People under 21 possessing marijuana and those selling it to minors would be treated as if the substance in question was alcohol.

The measure also creates a process for expunging records of those previously convicted of a crime that’s legalized by the measure. Owen said it wouldn’t release prisoners early or affect pending cases.

Owen, who ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature as a Libertarian in 2016, said he hasn’t used marijuana but nevertheless wants to see it legalized as a matter of criminal justice reform. He argued that too many people have been incarcerated, become ineligible for student loans or paid other prices for possessing what he described as a drug that’s less harmful than alcohol and opioids.

“Because of a plant … they are now barred for the rest of their life from ever really achieving what they could be,” he said. “And that is the real crime of the war on drugs.”

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Mark Friese, a former Bismarck police officer who’s now a criminal defense attorney in Fargo, was sympathetic to those arguments but said the measure is “very broadly written” and could offer new defenses for non-violent offenses involving the drug, such as paying a prostitute with marijuana. He said the expungement provision was also “inartfully drafted” and doesn’t account for someone who has another conviction alongside the marijuana offense.

“You can’t seal part of a case file, you can’t seal one charge because the charging document would have both,” Friese said, calling the language an “enormous logistical headache.”

Marijuana was the most commonly seized drug by North Dakota law enforcement last year, according to statistics from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office. Speaking to reporters while recapping the state’s latest crime statistics in June, the longtime Republican attorney general said legalizing marijuana has introduced a “host” of problems in other states, such as impaired drivers and increased pressure on treatment providers.

“I think it might just shift the law enforcement issues from one place to another,” he said. “And I have said for a long time that I don’t think that if marijuana is legalized in North Dakota we will be healthier or safer.”

The North Dakota Sheriff’s and Deputies Association has already passed a resolution opposing the legalization of recreational marijuana. Gov. Doug Burgum supports decriminalization at the federal level, his spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.

Owen said North Dakota already has a DUI law in place to deal with marijuana use and argued the measure could bring a major tax revenue boost.

Sending ‘shockwaves’

Measure supporters are backed by increasingly accepting attitudes over marijuana. The Pew Research Center said earlier this year that 61 percent of Americans say the drug should be legalized, nearly doubling the share of U.S. adults who said the same in 2000.

Legalize ND, the group pushing the ballot measure, commissioned a poll earlier this year that found a plurality, but not a majority, of North Dakota voters supported the idea.

Erik Altieri, executive director of the pro-legalization group NORML, pointed to recent national polling showing that, for the first time, a majority of Republicans support legalization, a sign the issue could find support even in conservative states like North Dakota. Nine states and the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Marijuana legalization is no longer a regional or partisan issue … and I expect North Dakota voters to send shockwaves across the country this fall when they join the growing contingent of states who have chosen the sensible path of legalization and regulation over prohibition and incarceration,” Altieri said in a statement.

The president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Kevin Sabet, warned of increased youth exposure to the drug and said the organization would work to defeat the measure.

In North Dakota, an estimated 9.8 percent of people ages 12 and older used marijuana in the past year, compared with 12.9 percent in Minnesota, according to the latest national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. But for 18 to 25-year-olds, that figure jumps to almost a quarter of North Dakotans and nearly a third of Minnesotans.

North Dakotans are still waiting on the availability of medical marijuana after voters legalized it in a landslide in 2016. State legislators rewrote the law last year and the state Department of Health is now working to license dispensaries and grow facilities.

Owen previously said the medical program wouldn’t be made obsolete by their measure because medical marijuana is held to a higher standard than recreational products. The state Department of Health’s top medical marijuana regulator previously said they were focused on implementing their program as required by law.

Owen said their measure is backed as a “grassroots” campaign with only about $8,000 raised as of July 9.

“I’m feeling very confident that the people of North Dakota will make the right decision,” he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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